September 14, 2003. It had been two days since the world lost Johnny Cash. That night my good friend Marion and I drove to Chapel Hill to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. After countless adjustments to the lights and teases from the crew setting up the stage – the stadium finally fell dark. A solitary spotlight lit the front of the stage, and out walked The Boss to raucous applause. Within seconds he had the entirety of Kenan Stadium virtually silent as he performed “I Walk the Line.” This was the second time Bruce Springsteen brought me to tears. The first time happened almost two years prior to that night, in fact. Accompanied by his wife Patti and a few other members of the E Street Band, Bruce performed “My City of Ruins” on a national telethon.
In 2012, at the Greensboro Coliseum it was the band’s performance of “Land of Hope and Dreams” that had me a little verklempt. That song gets me every single time. For those unfamiliar, the song now contains an interpolation (to borrow the term from hip-hop) of one of my favorite songs – The Impressions’ “People Get Ready.” Next to Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” the Curtis Mayfield masterpiece is one of the greatest Civil Rights-inspired popular-music compositions. “Land of Hope and Dreams” not only draws inspiration from “People Get Ready,” but also from the old traditional gospel song “This Train Is Bound for Glory.” The major difference between The Boss’ train and it’s precursor, is that the E Street Express has room not only for the saints but also the sinners. The winners and the losers. Whores and gamblers. The E Street Express carries lost souls. All aboard! I’m not a religious person. In more recent years I’ve grown to not even consider myself spiritual. I’m not really “a believer,” so it’s not that aspect of the song that evokes such an emotional response.
It’s hard to explain, really. You kind of have to be there. To experience “Land of Hope and Dreams” in person is like witnessing the most charismatic of evangelists without the fire and brimstone. The live performance is like a secular revival that grabs ahold of your soul and never lets go. The message is one of comfort. To go along with that, it’s a song that contains all the best elements of American music, so it has massive crossover appeal. To me, “Land of Hope and Dreams” has become the present day embodiment of what a Springsteen concert represents – unconditional inclusion.
Last Saturday night, I saw The Boss for the third time. This time, I was accompanied by my wife. I’ve been telling Taylor ever since we started dating that she was going to attend a Bruce Springsteen show. Now, if you asked her, she’d tell you that she really likes certain songs, but she’s not a big fan. Also, the idea of attending a concert being performed by a band whose members are older than her parents was probably not her ideal way to spend an evening. After all, an average Springsteen show lasts two and a half hours, and when you only know 10% of the setlist (at best), there has to be some fear of boredom. I, on the other hand, had no fear. You see, no band (no performer of any kind) gives back to their audience more than Bruce Springsteen, and Taylor was about to witness that firsthand.
First, there’s the audience request signs. This particular night he honored nine audience requests. Three of them classic covers: “Louie, Louie,” “Mustang Sally,” and “Brown Eyed Girl.”
Springsteen’s live show has been legendary for years now. When an artist has been performing for 50 years, he/she has many fans who will tell you when the glory days (no pun intended) were. “Man this one time in 1979, Bruce played for five hours!” “I’ll never forget the first time I heard ‘No Surrender’ live in 1984. It changed my life forever.” Even though the man is a physical phenomenon at age 64, of course he’s no longer in his prime. However, this generation has one thing going for them that none of the past generations had…
That’s right. The selfie. The Boss took part in at least seven selfies before I lost count.
And then of course, once one has performed for 50 years, your earliest fans are now grandparents. They introduced their children to the music, and now those children are introducing their very own to The Boss. One of those children was sitting right in front us. We were lucky enough to get two shows for the price of one.
Which brings me back full circle… What is it that I love so much about Bruce Springsteen and his mighty E Street Band? What is it about a rock band in concert that evokes such an emotional response in me? Some of my friends think of me as a music snob. Some particular friends refer to me as “smug.” Yet… what I love about Springsteen the most is that he has been able to reach so many people. There Taylor and I sat last Saturday night, surrounded by a packed arena. People of different ages, different races, different nationalities, different sets of morals, and different political allegiances. In fact, the large majority of those probably at odds with the very performer they were there to see. Yet, there we all were, together. No judgments passed. No arguments taking place. Just thousands of adoring fans there because of one man’s music. Unconditional inclusion. It’s a shared experience, and you immediately want to go and share it with as many other people as possible. That’s why this time was so special. This time, I was able to share it with my wife (and she loved it by the way).
I know what you might be thinking. “This dude is bearing witness now. Shared experiences? That kind of sounds familiar.” Not so fast. There are parts of The South where when you’re introduced to someone new, the first question they ask is, “What church do you belong to?” Well, I don’t go church, but when I’m at a Springsteen concert – that’s about as close as it gets for me.